On a poured-concrete floor in the living room of a home in the downtown hills of Santa Fe, an artist sits and builds her works with tiny bits of nature. She arranges leaves, sticks, flowers, and rocks into balanced constellations where each thing has just the right amount of space surrounding it. When she's content, she snaps a photo in the natural light pouring through her window.
Then Ja Soon Kim posts the photo to her Instagram account, @omjsk, to the delight of her 145,000 followers. "I used to sit and meditate. When I started doing it, I found it truly meditative. Even if it's a failure, the process is very calming because you're kind of lost in your own world. I consider that a profound treasure."
It's easy to imagine hours behind the delicate images Ja Soon creates, but she says she doesn't need a lot of time to arrange her micro-bounty. As she adventures — often with her Chihuahua, Ipo — she's struck by a purple petal, or a micaceous stone and imagines how she'll place it into an arrangement at home. "When I gather, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with it. It's given me a keener sense of being able to observe the world around me … I wonder what things would look like if there were a whole bunch together."
She has brown-capped plastic Talenti Gelato containers filled with dried leaves, spiny seeds, and colorful leaves in her pantry. Surfaces in her home feature immaculately laid out items, like a giant, long leaf with smooth blue, green, black, and brown river stones placed inside its curl like peas in a pod.
There's a strong elegance to Ja Soon's environment, as there is to her presence. She is a yoga teacher trained in the Iyengar tradition, which emphasizes precision and alignment in each pose. I ask about the parallel between working with the alignment of the body, and the organization Ja Soon does in her art. "Arranging things is truly meditative. I get a little bit lost, and I like that feeling. The more I can be with it, the better the picture becomes."
While Ja Soon has only been taking photos for around six years — since she started her Instagram account — photography has always been a part of her life. Her father, Chang Do Kim, was an avid photographer. During the Korean War, she and her family had to flee their home and became refugees on the South Coast. Ja Soon recalls going home at the end of the war, and her father taking pictures as they returned.
She remembers all of the equipment dragged along on family outings, and all the times the family posed in front of his lens. "He eventually built a darkroom and started developing his own photos. They were beautiful. I think maybe something rubbed off from there. We were constantly photographed, and they would all be hanging in his darkroom, and to me it was magic."
There's something magic in Ja Soon's images, too. They pull at your attention, and make you study each little, natural thing before you. Her caches of nature's artifacts remind you of the wonder in even the minutiae of our world.
Ja Soon is an environmentalist. She's a rebel who expresses not wanting to follow photographic and social media trends, who stands adamantly against driving great distances to photograph specific locations, and scoffs at the abundance of landscapes that dominate natural imagery. She has lilac tips in her silver bob.
A story she tells me about a trip she took with her ex-husband when they moved cross-country in 1971 serves as a metaphor for her view on photography. "We drove from New York to San Francisco, taking three months. We didn't take a single picture. It just wasn't the culture then. I think we had one roll, and I don't have it. Just think about how much more we got out of that, because we didn't stop to take pictures. I used to think we should take more pictures! But, no. We really saw everything."
When Ja Soon takes a photograph, she has everything she needs before her. She enters her own creative world, and loses herself in her process. She isn't seeking some far off place or lusting after a different environment; she's at peace with her wildflowers, her bits of cacti, and her process.
Her work has landed her commissions with major international brands like Cartier, Patagonia Korea, and, most recently, Amtrak. While Ja Soon always sees herself making images like the ones she's become known for, she has other plans for her future as well. "Moving forward, I am supposed to be more of a painter." An easel sits waiting for her in the corner.
About the author: Maria was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she currently lives and works as a freelance journalist. She wrote several 2017 cover stories in the Santa Fe Reporter, and had a former column called Bed Head, which focused on New Mexico-based fashion. She also makes clothing and sells curated vintage through her online shop, Heirmana. Over the past year, Maria has become more and more dedicated to telling women's stories, as she feels it is the best work she can do during this time of change, awakening, and female empowerment. She highlights women who are inspiring movements, breeding positivity, and spreading supportive messages to other women through their art, music, food, design, writing, and more.